David Bowie's penultimate album, The Next Day (2013, presumably created before he knew he had the liver cancer that would take him away) is soaked with anger, a dread of violence, and a sense of fighting against mortality that doesn't quite fit our idea of a retired 66-year-old rock star. After 10 years, Bowie was still writing -- and rewriting -- his legacy, calling out images reminding us of the old days, from space dancers to corpses hanging from trees.
"Here I am / not quite dying," he announces. And he's still the magpie he always was. He loved to reference other songs, from The Beatles ("Beep beep") to Broadway show tunes ("Get me to the church on time") to old novelty songs ("Look at that caveman go"). Part of the fun is in the trainspotting.
And as always, The Next Day's referencing his past and also your impression of his past. The Tin Machine era aside, he continually referenced his earlier tones ("Ashes to Ashes"), and this one's not entirely brand-new Bowie either, as just adding extra notes (post-it?) on a previous iteration.
The cover fairly insists it's just a re-do of "Heroes" -- of course it's not. But its tonal and musical variety of anger and sometimes punk-inflected or broken drum signatures call back most Scary Monsters. "The day after Heroes"? Yeah, close enough.
From bodies in trees to the armed shooter of "Valentine's Day" -- the lyrics are a dark update of Scary's schizophrenic urban nightmare. Within this context, the track "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die," on the face a romantic-sounding palate cleanser before the drone of the closer "Heat," emerges as something quite different, when digested with the rest of the meal.
The first clue something sinister is up comes from the title, an easy version of Hank Williams' 1949 standard "I Feel So Lonesome I Could Cry," but also calls back to Lennon's "Yer Blues" from the White album. A close reading of the lyrics reveals a night encounter with a lonely figure walking through the park, a silent gun, a character reviled for stealing "their trust, their moon, their sun."
He's done something awful, and the moon (and the stars (out tonight)) and the sun can't help remind us of karma (instant) -- and those other elements all across the universe, which doubles the reference back to Bowie again (and further evokes whom he collaborated with on that particular record).
With images of rain-soaked streets and a cold concrete city, I can't help think the song's mourning a New York without John Lennon. We know that when Lennon was shot, Bowie was in NY playing on Broadway in The Elephant Man. He didn't make any new music for two years, and then it was the digestible, non-confrontational and non-obsessive Let's Dance. But the event didn't leave our new romantic completely unscathed.
Without naming the subject of the song, there's vitriol hiding behind his Elvis Presley croon. "I can see you as a corpse/ hanging from a tree... Please, please make it soon." Bowie wants him to die lonely, cold -- death his last and only companion.
There's some polite sympathy with "You got the blues, my friend" but Bowie's clipped and tense vocal, purposely limiting his own range past what might just be age (shades of his monotone delivery on Low), suggests he's spitting it out between his teeth. "People don't like you." Karma indeed.
And yet, the track has the romantic wash of a torch song. Bowie's given it the shade of a ballad about love lost (which it also is), disguising the venom behind a theatrical production closer to "Heartbreak Hotel" than to "Working Class Hero." Bowie doesn't ever make it too easy. He can't give everything away.
Ain't that just like him?
Ain't that just like him?